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USDA project looks to diversify farms

USDA project looks to diversify farms

pennycress harvest

Several universities in Midwestern states are studying the introduction of a third crop such a pennycress to reduce the reliance on a monocrop system. 

A $10 million project funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has been launched with the idea of improving diversification, sustainability and resilience on Midwestern farms. Exactly what that means is a bit fuzzy, however.

The five-year study involves academicians from several universities in Midwestern states. They are working on setting up meetings with others in agriculture to determine, among other things, how farmers can lessen their reliance on a monocrop systems.

“I would like to have — at the end of five years — a vision of how policies can be changed,” said Linda Prokopy, a horticulture professor at Purdue University. “Maybe we’ll find out that corn and soybeans really are the best fit. We may find that we’re completely wrong and everything is the best it can be. But I think we can do a lot better.”

The elusive so-called “third crop” could be pennycress, hemp or something else to rotate with corn and soybeans. One barrier — especially with industrial hemp — has been marketing. That’s something researchers will examine.

“Market development will be a big part of that,” Prokopy said. “We’ll experiment by setting up pilot markets for different crops.”

The project officially has six objectives. They include development of the agricultural value chain, modeling impacts of landscape scenarios on the ecosystem and looking at policy recommendations to establish conditions required for economic vitality.

Among the official outline is the goal of having participants “consider ethical choices and sustainability of outcomes.”

Prokopy acknowledges that some of the language is a bit cloudy.

“It has the potential to be pie in the sky,” she said. “It’s pie in the sky in terms of putting everything aside and really visioning, then grounding it back in reality. How can we make those work?”

Another charge is the creation of sessions at the local, state and federal levels that allow participants to “consider ethical choices and sustainability outcomes.”

“That language is in there because we have brought in a couple of ethicists on the project,” Prokopy said. “I want to be able to facilitate stepping back from the conversation a little bit. Who do we want to be? This country is divided: red versus blue, vaccines versus no vaccines. Under that we all have similar goals. Having ethicists lets us guide a conversation to help people open up to think about what we should be doing.”

She described “social barriers” mentioned in the study as farming peer pressure.

“That’s about community norms,” she said. “Other farmers looking down on you, like in cover crops. We’ve already seen that.”

Another example might be the reactions no-till practitioners first got when they left stubble in their fields instead of smoothly tilled soil.

While Purdue leads the project, researchers from the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin are also involved.

“There are several NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the Practical Farmers of Iowa,” Prokopy said. “It’s a really diverse group.”

There are some practical goals. They include looking at the effects of certain crops on water quality and the impact of reintegrating livestock onto cropland.

“We don’t expect to diversify the Corn Belt in five years, obviously,” Prokopy said. “But we want to start to see a vision of the potentiality of a different landscape and determine what kind of policies could support that transition.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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